Chitlins vs. Chekhov

Shelly Garrett is not ashamed to admit that he's a man who gets manicures. In fact, he was getting his nails clipped in a Los Angeles beauty shop 12 years ago when he came upon his idea for the first stage play to successfully storm the "urban circuit."

"I would [get a manicure] once a week," the former San Bernadino radio DJ and part-time actor remembers, "and I would see all of the things that happen at a beauty shop." Why not a play about the sassy, side-splitting and often surreal goings-on of a black-owned, black-inhabited salon? Beauty Shop was born.

Creator/producer/director Garrett's baby spent two years prettying up Los Angeles before embarking on its first of six national tours in 1989. According to Garrett, Shop was seen by more than 150 million people and took in over $25 million in ticket sales between 1989 and 1992. "There are people who've seen Beauty Shop four or five times," he says. "They can't get enough of it, because people want to laugh."

But not everyone finds it that funny. Outrageous, ethnically ribald (read: ghetto) plays like Shop aren't the kind of Afrocentric plays embraced by die-hard fans of, let's say, August Wilson or Ntozake Shange. In fact, Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates Jr. has dismissed plays like Beauty Shop as "chitlin circuit" theater.

Veteran producer Garrett admits that plays like Shop are an acquired taste. Then he quotes the always palatable and often wise African-American entertainer Bill Cosby: "The first step to failure is trying to please everyone." Besides, Garrett thinks there might be one percent of people who really don't care for this type of comedy.

Garrett, who'll start work on another play once Shop's anniversary run comes to a close, says he has no other aspiration but to show audiences the funny side of African-American life. "The only thing I want to do is to entertain America," he says. "And I want them to come and have a good time and kick the shoes off and just relax and laugh."

Beauty Shop sure isn't Chekhov, but why is that bad?

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Beauty Shop is playing Friday, May 28, 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 29, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.; and Sunday, May 30, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Aerial Theater, 520 Texas Avenue, (713)230-1600 or (713)629-3700. $20.50-$32.50.

 
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